J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · May 9, 2017

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has signed SF 446, a bill designed to reform Iowa’s civil forfeiture laws by requiring, in most cases, a criminal conviction before police can permanently confiscate property. Unlike criminal forfeiture, civil forfeiture typically allows the government to permanently keep property without charging anyone with a crime.

“Iowa has some of the worst civil forfeiture laws in the nation, and we hope this legislation will build momentum for further reforms,” said Institute for Justice Senior Legislative Counsel Lee McGrath. “Along with our coalition partner at the ACLU of Iowa, we will keep fighting until Iowa’s rigged system is abolished, once and for all.”

Under the new law, if a property is valued at under $5,000, the owner must be first be convicted in criminal court before their property can be forfeited in civil court. Compared with the other dozen states with criminal-conviction requirements, Iowa’s threshold is by far the lowest.

Yet according to data analysis by the Institute for Justice, out of all cash forfeitures in 2015, half were under $845. In fact, just 14 percent of cash forfeitures were over the $5,000 threshold.

Additionally, SF 446 will enact the following reforms:

  • Shift the burden of proof from innocent owners onto the government, restoring the presumption of innocence;
  • Raise the standard of proof to forfeit property to clear and convincing evidence; and
  • Implement new recordkeeping requirements, obliging agencies to report the value and disposition of the property acquired as well as an itemized list of expenditures spent with forfeited property, excluding those made in ongoing investigations.

“No one should mistake this bill for a comprehensive fix of Iowa’s shameful forfeiture laws,” McGrath noted. “Far too many underlying issues remain unaddressed, including the perverse financial incentives that warp law enforcement priorities to pursue cash instead of criminals.”

Law enforcement agencies can still retain up to 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeited property. The new law does nothing to close the equitable-sharing loophole, which has doled out more than $36 million in federal forfeiture money to Iowa agencies. Even with the new recordkeeping requirements, Iowa still fails several basic metrics for forfeiture transparency and accountability.

In fact, one little-noticed change in SF 446 weakens protections for property owners.  For cases under the conviction threshold, prosecutors do not have to file a forfeiture proceeding until 180 days after the criminal prosecution is resolved, which itself can take months, if not years.

“This change will keep the courthouse doors shut for Iowans desperate to regain their property,” McGrath added. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Iowa has been a hotbed for civil forfeiture. Carole Hinders, who owned a Mexican restaurant in Spirit Lake, had her entire bank account seized by the IRS—nearly $33,000. But after the Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit, she recovered her hard-earned cash. Professional poker players Bart Davis and John Newmerzhycky made national headlines when $100,000 of their cash was confiscated by the Iowa Highway Patrol; their case was settled in December.

Nationwide, Iowa now joins 20 other states and Washington, D.C. that have tightened their forfeiture laws in recent years. Two of those states—New Mexico and Nebraska—have abolished civil forfeiture entirely, and replaced it with criminal forfeiture. Further legislative efforts are currently pending in at least nine other states.

“No criminal deserves to keep their ill-gotten gains. But there is no reason why innocent Iowans should have fewer safeguards for their constitutional rights than their neighbors in Nebraska,” McGrath said.